The aforementioned Oregon Ducks are generally considered the favorite, but their schedule is brutal, with the non-conference trip to East Lansing and games against South foes USC and Arizona State, both picked to contend for a berth in the league championship game. The real depth is in the South, so perhaps Oregon can withstand a loss or two and still advance out of their division, but I don't see them contending nationally. Stanford, led by quarterback Kevin Hogan, should be much improved, but they have a killer schedule and will be hard pressed to exceed seven wins from a year ago. They host Arizona, UCLA, Oregon and Notre Dame, so perhaps the home field will get them three wins in those games, and if they do, look out. They return eight other offensive starters to complement Hogan, so maybe they catch lightning in a bottle. Cal brings back eight starters on an offense that at time last season was able to light it up against lesser competition. An early non-conference test against Texas in Austin will be a barometer whether Sonny Dykes can lead the Bears to the next level. I like Oregon to win the division, but they may lose a few feathers in the process.
Everyone talks about the SEC West, but this division is easily the second toughest in the country. USC, finally free of the NCAA penalties from the Reggie Bush fiasco, is looking to return to national prominence. A hiccup by head coach Steve Sarkisian a couple of weeks ago may serve as a minor distraction, but QB Cody Kessler has plenty of weapons on offense. The Trojans' problem is a defense that gave up a lot of points last year, ranking just 45th in the country, hitting a low in a 77 - 44 loss to Washington State. Improvement on that side of the ball could spell big success in the City of Angels. Right behind the Trojans are Arizona State, Arizona and UCLA. Arizona got to the conference championship game last year by beating Arizona State and having Stanford take out UCLA. I expect the same kind of down to the wire action this season. We'll find out early how good Arizona State is, as they take on Texas A&M in Houston to open their schedule. Arizona, with a very poor out of conference schedule, could find itself left out of the playoffs even with a conference championship by scheduling UNLV, UTSA and Nevada to open the season. They're the only Pac-12 contender without a Big Five conference team on their schedule.
Prediction: At the end of the day, I like USC. Kik Herbstreit of ESPN has Arizona State making the playoffs, and if they do indeed go 12-1 and win the crown, their schedule would justify inclusion. But I don't see their defense improving enough to get there.